He was coming home.
Maryland's Eastern Shore was a world of marshes and mudflats, of wide fields with row crops straight as soldiers. It was flatland rivers with sharp shoulders, and secret tidal creeks where the heron fed.
It was blue crab and the Bay, and the watermen who harvested them.
No matter where he'd lived, in the first miserable decade of his life, or in the last few years as he approached the end of his third decade, only the Shore had ever meant home.
There were countless aspects, countless memories of that home, and every one was as bright and brilliant in his mind as the sun that sparkled off the water of the Chesapeake.
As he drove across the bridge, his artist's eye wanted to capture that moment-the rich blue water and the boats that skimmed its surface, the quick white waves and the swoop of greedy gulls. The way the land skimmed its edge, and spilled back with its browns and greens. All the thickening leaves of the gum and oak trees, with those flashes of color that were flowers basking in the warmth of spring.
He wanted to remember this moment just as he remembered the first time he'd crossed the bay to the Eastern Shore, a surly, frightened boy beside a man who'd promised him a life.
He'd sat in the passenger seat of the car, with the man he hardly knew at the wheel. He had the clothes on his back, and a few meager possessions in a paper sack.
His stomach had been tight with nerves, but he'd fixed what he thought was a bored look on his face and had stared out the window.
If he was with the old guy, he wasn't with her. That was as good a deal as he could get.
Besides, the old guy was pretty cool.
He didn't stink of booze or of the mints some of the assholes Gloria brought up to the dump they were living in used to cover it up. And the couple of times they'd been together, the old guy, Ray, had bought him a burger or pizza.
And he'd talked to him.
Adults, in his experience, didn't talk to kids. At them, around them, over them. But not to them.
Ray did. Listened, too. And when he'd asked, straight out, if he-just a kid-wanted to live with him, he hadn't felt that strangling fear or hot panic. He'd felt like maybe, just maybe, he was catching a break.
Away from her. That was the best part. The longer they drove, the farther away from her.
If things got sticky, he could run. The guy was really old. Big, he was sure as shit big, but old. All that white hair, and that wide, wrinkled face. He took quick, sidelong glances at it, began to draw the face in his mind. His eyes were really blue, and that was kind of weird because so were his own.
He had a big voice, too, but when he talked it wasn't like yelling. It was kind of calm, even a little tired, maybe.
He sure looked tired now.
"Almost home," Ray said as they approached the bridge. "Hungry?"
"I dunno. Yeah, I guess."
"My experience, boys are always hungry. Raised three bottomless pits."
There was cheer in the big voice, but it was forced. The child might have been barely ten, but he knew the tone of falsehood.
Far enough away now, he thought. If he had to run. So he'd put the cards on the table and see what the fuck was what.
"How come you're taking me to your place?"
"Because you need a place."
"Get real. People don't do shit like that."
"Some do. Stella and I, my wife, we did shit like that."
"You tell her you're bringing me around?"
Ray smiled, but there was a sadness in it. "In my way. She died some time back. You'd've liked her. And she'd have taken one look at you and rolled up her sleeves."
He didn't know what to say about that. "What am I supposed to do when we get where we're going?"
"Live," Ray told him. "Be a boy. Go to school, get in trouble. I'll teach you to sail."
"On a boat?"
Now Ray laughed, a big booming sound that filled the car and for reasons the boy couldn't understand, untied the nerves in his belly. "Yeah, on a boat. Got a brainless puppy-I always get the brainless ones- I'm trying to housebreak. You can help me with that. You're gonna have chores, we'll figure that out. We'll lay down the rules, and you'll follow them. Don't think because I'm an old man I'm a pushover."
"You gave her money."
Ray glanced away from the road briefly and looked into eyes the same color as his own. "That's right. That's what she understands, from what I can see. She never understood you, did she, boy?"
Something was gathering inside him, a storm he didn't recognize as hope. "If you get pissed off at me, or tired of having me around, or just change your mind, you'll send me back. I won't go back."
They were over the bridge now, and Ray pulled the car to the shoulder of the road, shifted his bulk in the seat so they were face- to-face. "I'll get pissed off at you, and at my age I'm bound to get tired from time to time. But I'm making you a promise here and now, I'm giving you my word. I won't send you back."
"I won't let her take you back," Ray said, anticipating him. "No matter what I have to do. You're mine now. You're my family now. And you'll stay with me as long as that's what you want. A Quinn makes a promise," he added, and held out a hand, "he keeps it."
Seth looked at the offered hand, and his own sprang damp. "I don't like being touched."
Ray nodded. "Okay. But you've still got my word on it." He pulled back onto the road again, gave the boy one last glance. "Almost home," he said again.
Within months, Ray Quinn had died, but he'd kept his word. He'd kept it through the three men he'd made his sons. Those men had given the scrawny, suspicious and scarred young boy a life.
They had given him a home, and made him a man.
Cameron, the edgy, quick-tempered gypsy; Ethan, the patient, steady waterman; Phillip, the elegant, sharp-minded executive. They had stood for him, fought for him. They had saved him.